A presidential race always prompts a reckoning in the country. It poses several questions to those who want to lead, but perhaps even more to the voters picking a leader. The race reveals what Americans care about, their fears and their dreams.
The current presidential race is no exception — and the frustration with income inequality is an issue at the forefront. President Obama in his remarks on economic inequality said, “I believe this is the defining challenge of our time: making sure our economy works for every working American.”
He went on to say, “And while we don’t promise equal outcomes, we have strived to deliver equal opportunity — the idea that success doesn’t depend on being born into wealth or privilege, it depends on effort and merit.”
That sentiment is not unique, but it is contentious because there is a growing body of work proving that privilege, and the lack of it, affects merit tremendously. The studies on early childhood in low-income households especially hone in on just how flawed the American meritocracy can be — and how the system we have can perpetuate inequality rather than bridge it.
President Obama went so far as to say that it is this immobility in the system that drives the frustration of citizens. He said the frustration is “… rooted in the nagging sense that no matter how hard they work, the deck is stacked against them.”
That description doesn’t sound like that of a meritocracy. For me, it invokes a quote from Alfred North Whitehead: “The essence of dramatic tragedy is not unhappiness. It resides in the solemnity of the remorseless working of things.” Because what is true for drama is increasingly being recognized as the truth of the American system — i.e. the fact that the family that people are born into is deciding the outcomes of their lives, regardless of their efforts.
The most obvious example of this correlation is Donald Trump. He reveals quite spectacularly how privilege can shield someone from failure, as well as the kind of social stratification we take for granted. He is emblematic of the way wealth can be concentrated in families through inheritance and the safety net it can provide — and the way that safety net lowers the stakes for failure. If it weren’t so terrifying, it would be fascinating to observe the futility of failure to deter him from the path to wealth, to power and to recognition. Because no matter how many times Trump falls down, he has the safety net of his family name and fortune to pick him back up. It almost seems like the trajectory of Trump’s career is entirely divorced from the reality of his investments. It almost doesn’t matter that Donald Trump couldn’t sell steaks or vodka or water — because whether he is valued at “an excess of 10 BILLION DOLLARS” or at a more modest $4.5 billion, Trump is still wealthy, and by that standard, successful.
And yet, he tries to pass himself off as a self-made man. And while he is an extreme example, he is not alone. Although he started out with a million-dollar loan, he justifies himself with the fact that he made that money multiply — ignoring the head start he got. But that rational reveals the complicated relationship of privilege and merit: Privilege facilitates merit (revealed through examples like the correlation between family income and SAT scores), and yet the existence of privilege cannot negate that merit.
That contradiction is particularly salient in institutions like Stanford, because not only are they places where merit and privilege intersect, they are also involved in the training of future leaders. And while not everyone at Stanford is privileged, a significant portion are, and coming to terms with what that entails is a complicated journey.
Because there is a dichotomy at play — growing up in a wealthy household but wanting more equality and social mobility means criticizing and trying to dismantle the very system that rewarded the student. It puts a person in the hard position of willingly giving up the spoils from a game rigged in his or her favor. Acknowledging the advantages of privilege also brings up a question that can be terrifying to ask — namely, the question of whether someone deserves to be here. It can feel like an attack on an individual’s merit or a belittling of the work it took them to make it this far.
That kind of introspection and doubt feels a lot like learning self-hate. Navneet Alang, writing for Hazlitt about being a man and being a feminist, agrees. He speculates that a person who benefits from an oppressive system, in his case a man in a patriarchy, can only redeem himself by being self-hating. This provocative position — that the only good man is a self-hating man — rests on the logic that a man who is a feminist must constantly question what he was taught implicitly his whole life. He goes on to explain that we arrive in the world too late. We are adults in a world that is not the one we grew up in — where the offhand remarks that formed us, like “boys don’t cry,” are now wrong. In trying to catch up to new moral standards, we are caught in a fight against ourselves. Alang writes, “It requires a humility that borders on embarrassment. One must be both retroactive and apologetic, recognizing and correcting mistakes after the fact. It is infuriating. But it is the only way.”
If it is the only way, then we have to take it, no matter how hard. And that means we often have to take infuriating and shameful steps backward from positions that seem like a birthright, but doing that is worth it if it is an inoculation against the kind of self-delusion that fuels Donald Trump.
Contact Rhea Karuturi at rheakaru ‘at’ stanford.edu.